Friday evenings used to mean poker. Or something vaguely resembling poker. As close as we comic book people could approximate it. Unsophisticated, and yet charmingly buffoonish in its utter lack of skill.
Thirty-five years ago, almost every Friday evening, a bunch of us would gather at somebody’s place to play poker. Usually, early on, it was the vast apartment Paul Levitz shared with Marty Pasko down on Mercer Street.
That place was terrific. It was really like two fairly spacious apartments with a common kitchen and living room, which was the size of a football field. All right, maybe the living room was only the size of tennis court. The point is it was big. It was in the middle. Paul’s rooms were to the right as you walked in and Marty’s were to the left. It was a nice, new building and a nice, comfy place. And they had a big table, perfect for cards.
Regular attendees in the early days included Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Steve Mitchell, Mike Barr, Paul and Marty, of course, and me. I’m probably forgetting some people.
Paul Kupperberg came once in a while.
We played for dimes.
And we played the weirdest games. It was dealer’s choice. Marv’s favorite game was what normal people called “low man in the hole,” a seven card stud game in which the lowest hidden card was wild. Marv called this game “low moose in the hole,” or just “low moose.” With Marv, everything was “moose.” Mooses? Meece? Whatever. If he turned up three of a kind, he would declare his hand “three mooses,” even if they were fives.
And, while we’re on Marv, he wasn’t exactly steeped in the lore of the game. Before we started, someone, usually Paul or me, would have to write out a list for him showing the ranking of the hands, from highest to lowest: 1. straight flush, 2. Four of a kind, 3. Full house, etc.
So, everybody knew he had two pair.
If it had been a bluff it would have been genius.
One of our rules was that “royalties” were paid by everyone at the table to anyone who got four of a kind or a straight flush. Royalties were a dollar each later on. In those early days it might have been a quarter each. I forget. That was in addition to the money they surely won on the hand itself.
Royalties came up more often than you’d expect because we played so many wild card games. The trouble with wild cards is that they sometimes give rise to debates about whether five of a kind beats a straight flush…and do both hands get royalties?
The real point of the poker games, by the way, wasn’t gambling. The card playing was far from serious—how are you going to force people to fold with your pocket kings if all you can bet is twenty cents? No bluff ever worked. Somebody with a fruit salad hand could stick around, pull an inside straight on the last card and win. I don’t think Len ever folded.
The point was socializing. Laughing. Honking and hooting in undignified ways. Making fun of whatever, including each other. Marv would lament that his cards “sucked moose dick in the moonlight.” Why that always got a laugh, I don’t know, except, maybe because we were all drunk as one can get on Diet Coke and had been laughing so much anyway that anything seemed funny. “Linoleum” seemed funny.
“Is there supposed to be a three of cups in this deck?”
“The cards in my hand haven’t been formally introduced.”
“This isn’t a hand, it’s a foot.”
Etc. And worse.
If Paul was losing, he’d excuse himself from a few hands, go into his office, write a page or two of the Legion, then return to the game, satisfied that the thirty bucks or so he’d just earned made him comfortably “up for the night” money-wise. Marty tried to do the same thing once, but it took him so long to write a page that he missed the rest of the game.
There were occasional outbreaks of outrageous, nonsensical, comedic insult-duels. Inevitably, one of the comicombatants would say, “Your mother…!” Then Steve Michell, as big as me and more intimidating, would loudly warn, “NO MOTHERS!” And we’d laugh and get on with the evening’s fifty-two card follies.
Steve decided, for reasons unknown, to start calling Mike Barr “Mister Meat,” or just “Meat.” At first Mike bristled, but after a while let it go. The nickname wasn’t going away—it had too many applications for snappy patter, such as “dead Meat,” “Meat your doom,” etc. You can guess.
In spite of all that, there wasn’t much in the way of really gross, disgusting or off-color stuff. It was creative and crazy humor, peppered with curses and mooses, but not nasty. The f-word was flung around sometimes, but nobody got too personal or raunchy. And, no mothers, believe me. Except once. It was my fault. I’ll tell you later.
So, you get the lay of the land, right?
One evening, Paul Kupperberg joined us. He was sitting to my left. I was dealing. I tended toward the more standard games, regular stud and draw, no common cards, no wild cards. I dealt “five card draw, jacks or better to open.”
For those who don’t know, that means that the player who makes the opening bet must have a pair of jacks in his hand or something higher than a pair of jacks—a pair of queens, for instance. If it’s your turn to bet and no one has “opened” yet, and you don’t have jacks or better, you say “I pass,” or “I can’t open,” and the bet passes to the next player.
So, the person to my right, couldn’t open. Neither could the next guy. Everyone passed, all the way around the table to Paul Kupperberg. He passed. I didn’t have jacks or better either, so, it was a dead hand, a re-deal. Everyone threw in his cards. As Paul Kupperberg tossed his cards in, I saw them flashing past my eyes—the two, three, four, five and six of clubs! A NATURAL STRAIGHT FLUSH!
“Hold it!” I said, grabbing PK’s cards. “This is a straight flush! Why on Earth did you fold?!”
“I didn’t have jacks,” PK said, looking a little puzzled.
“It was Jacks or BETTER. This is better!”
Hysterical laughter and derision of PK ensued.
Paul Levitz retired the deck. Later, he forced PK to SIGN A CONFESSION! Words to the effect: “I, Paul Kupperberg, on (date) folded a straight flush….” Levitz then had the confession with the five-club straight flush framed. I suppose he still has it.
Ask Levitz. Or Steve Mitchell. Or PK himself. I ran into him at a party at Jeff Rovin’s house a few years ago. My girlfriend Ellen, an excellent poker player herself, upon being introduced to PK said, “Wait…are you the one who folded a straight flush?”
I’m sure he was pleased to meet her.
The venue changed sometimes, the cast of crazies changed, but the Friday evening poker games continued fairly regularly for the next ten or twelve years. Among those who ante’d up were Jack Abel, Al Milgrom, Roger McKenzie, sometimes with his wife Dickie, Bob McLeod, Mike Zeck, Renee Witterstatter, Tom DeFalco, Denny O’Neill, Paul Becton, JayJay, Debbie Fix and even Jenette Kahn for a while. John Byrne came once with a female friend in tow, while in town from Calgary for a con. And there were many other one-shot guest appearances and occasional players. I’ll remember more later.
Once in a while on a Friday, when nostalgia overwhelms me, I’ll throw in a poker tale along with the usual rants and reminiscences.
MONDAY: Writer Editors